Those of you who follow this blog have read (e.g., here and here) about conviction integrity units (CIUs): small groups of attorneys in a district attorney’s office who have the mission of investigating claims of wrongful convictions in past cases tried by that same office. These units, just like homicide units, major crimes units, or others in the DA’s office, are dedicated to one type of work: investigating claims of wrongful conviction. grity work.
The first conviction integrity unit in the country was established by Dallas DA Craig Watkins, in order to have a regular way to investigate the claims of wrongful convictions that his office already faced, and others that might arise in the future.
I support CIUs. They assure that the DA’s office has a built-in way to address any substantive claim of wrongful conviction. They can work in partnership with local innocence projects, which can serve as screeners for claims of innocence, in order to point CIUs to cases with real, tenable claims. (This was the arrangement between the Dallas DA’s CIU and the Texas Innocence Project when I researched and wrote my book Failed Evidence.) CIUs are far from a perfect solution; they are, after all, part of the DA’s office that may have made the alleged mistakes being investigated, and so they lack independence. But without a better alternative — for example, a state-created agency like North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission — CIUs can do the job, and can be created immediately, on the orders of the DA.
CIUs have begun to spread to DA’s offices across the country. And with that visibility comes some serious thinking about how best to assure conviction integrity. A conference will take place this Friday, April 4, and Saturday, April 5, called “A Systems Approach to Conviction Integrity,” sponsored by the Quattrone Center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia. The event is free, and will be live streamed on the internet for those (like me) who cannot get to Philadelphia to attend.
Take a look at the description of the conference and the agenda. It’s designed to help people involved in the criminal justice system learn to use quality control systems from experts in laboratory science, aviation and aeronautics, medicine, public health, transportation and other fields who have created mechanisms and institutional cultures designed to reduce and ferret out errors. Here’s a sample of the conference statement, just to give everyone a sense:
The problem of quality control pervades many of the systems in our society. Panelists, each expert in quality control and systems error reduction in a complex, high-risk field, will explore efforts to address quality control in a range of other important areas, such as healthcare, aviation, laboratories, etc., and how maintaining quality in the criminal justice system may be similar to and different from quality control in these other areas.
If you are interested in the problem of reducing wrongful convictions going forward — that is, not just correcting the errors of the past, but avoiding them in the future — I urge you to attend or watch via the web stream. The conference will be a milestone along the road to a better, more accurate criminal justice system, with a ton of information we can all use.